I studied my reflection and smiled. Yes, this outfit would do nicely.
Sarita and Mabel were waiting in the living area when I emerged from my bedroom. They’d both agreed to help Michaela with the party, too. Sarita eyed me up and down.
“Okay, who are you, and what have you done with Afric?”
I put a hand on my hip. “I’m wearing a dress. What’s your problem?”
“No problem. I’m just wondering who you’ve dolled yourself up for,” she shot back. “Is Michael Sheen going to be at this party or something?”
“You leave Michael out of this. And no, he isn’t. I haven’t dolled myself up for anyone. It’s a party. I can hardly go in pyjamas.”
“Well, I think you look lovely,” Mabel said, shooting me a kind smile.
“Thank you, Mabel.”
Sarita blew out a breath. “Fine, keep your secrets. We’d better get going if we don’t want to be late.”
A little while later, Sarita, Mabel, and I entered the private rooftop bar in Shoreditch, where Isaac’s surprise party was being held. He was the newest and youngest member of Running on Air. Originally from South Africa, I read that the group had discovered him while filming one of the earlier seasons and subsequently recruited him to be on the show. I thought it was nice how they all welcomed him into the fold and threw him birthday parties even though he hadn’t been with them very long. Michaela always said that working on the show felt like being in a big family, and I sometimes felt a little jealous of that.
I was a dichotomy because I adored being alone, working for myself and answering to no one, but I also craved companionship.
Michaela was there to greet us when we arrived, though I didn’t spot Neil anywhere. She must’ve sensed I was searching for him because she shot me a secret smile and whispered, “He’s out back taking drinks inventory.”
I grinned and headed in the direction Michaela had pointed. There was a small hallway at the end of which appeared to be a stock room. I approached the threshold, and there he was. His back was turned to me as he held a clipboard and pen, scribbling down numbers while counting bottles of alcohol. I allowed myself a moment to take him in and also to admire his backside in the navy slacks he wore. Then, quite impulsively, I launched myself forward and wrapped my arms around his middle. A startled breath gushed out of him as he stiffened.
“Guess who?” I whispered, and he instantly relaxed. A deep, amused chuckle escaped him.
“Afric,” he said, still facing away from me. My name on his tongue sent a tingle down my spine. God, I really had it bad. “You almost gave me a heart attack,” he went on.
On instinct, I rested my head in the space between his surprisingly broad, firm shoulders. “Sorry. I was excited to see you. You smell amazing, by the way. What cologne are you wearing?”
I felt him melt into the backwards hug like he needed the connection just as much as I did.
“Um … I think that’s just my fabric softener.”
I took a deep inhale. “Whatever it is, it smells great.”
A small sigh escaped him. “Thanks.”
“How was your flight home?”
“Long. I’m glad to be back.”
“I’m glad you’re back.”
“Are we ever going to turn around and face each other?” There was a smile in his voice.
“I don’t think so. I’m enjoying this hug too much.”
“For a rangy bloke, you’re surprisingly huggable.”
He laughed, and the sound vibrated through me. He began to twist around, but I didn’t loosen my hold as I looked up. Our eyes met. There was a tenderness in his gaze that took me off guard. His eyes travelled over my face, taking in my every feature before settling for several seconds on my lips. My belly fluttered. Neil brought his eyes back to mine, and I finally released my hold and stepped away. His gaze swept down my body and his eyebrows rose.
“You’re wearing a dress,” he stated.
“That is correct,” I replied with a smile.
“You look … nice.”
My smile widened. “Nice? Is that the best you can do?”
“Fine, you look fantastic.” There was a pause as his cheeks reddened ever so slightly, and he amended, “Then again, I’ve been staring at you through a computer screen for weeks, so anything is a step up from that.”
I swiped him on the shoulder. “Hey! Don’t ruin it.”
He chuckled deeply. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist.” He gave my body another perusal. “It really is good to see you.”
“It’s good to see you, too. I missed seeing your stupid face in person.”
Now he smiled, his eyes not leaving mine. I couldn’t look away either. It just felt so exhilarating to finally be standing in the same room as him. To anyone else, it probably seemed mundane, but I might as well have been on a rollercoaster my heart was beating so fast.